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Allegations of Iranian Use of Chemical Weapons in the 1980–88 Gulf War – Introduction

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Allegations that Iran is a chemical weapon (CW) proliferator originated in part with claims that it had used CW during the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq war. Iraq was the principal user of CW during the war. According to Iranian accounts, the first chemical attacks began in January 1981, but independent reports were not published until one and a half years later. Iraqi chemical attacks definitely escalated during the second half of 1983, which eventually led to the first of several investigatory missions organised by UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuellar in March 1984. Despite the overwhelming evidence of chemical warfare, confirmed by the UN missions, the international community represented by the UN Security Council chose not to brand Iraq as the violator of the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons in armed conflict. Instead, it repeatedly called upon both belligerents to respect the protocol and only accused Iraq by name of waging chemical warfare in the final stages of the conflict. Iran—internationally isolated because of its inflammatory rhetoric, subversion of governments in the Middle East, and the hostage taking of US embassy personnel following the 1979 Islamic Revolution—meanwhile felt increasingly frustrated by the lack of will to uphold international law and threatened to resort to CW in retaliation.

There is widespread consensus that Iran was unprepared for chemical warfare during the early part of the war. Iran gradually built up its CW defence and protection capabilities and towards the end of the war it had established a CW production base. However, there is far less agreement on whether Iran systematically used CW and on when it may have begun to use such weapons. There are no independently verifiable accounts of Iranian chemical operations. While evidence is available that Iraqi military personnel was exposed to chemical warfare agents, no independent report confirmed that these casualties were the consequence of Iranian actions. Some of the most serious allegations of Iranian chemical warfare surfaced in the United States after the CW attacks against the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988. In particular, some US sources alleged that Iran rather than Iraq was responsible for most of the victims in Halabja. These claims were based on US intelligence sources, most of which are not open to independent scrutiny. Moreover, the claims were made in a political environment in which there was strong pressure to broaden the US political and economic ties with Iraq despite the evidence of that country’s systematic persecution of its Kurdish minority.

Decontamination operations outside Halabja, March 1988

This report describes the Iranian preparations for chemical warfare during the Gulf war and its immediate aftermath. It summarises and discusses Iranian statements that it will resort to CW and the political context in which these statements were made. The allegations regarding Halabja are investigated in detail.


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